Mar 19 2013 10:00am

Sleeps With Monsters: Thinking About Dishonored

Sleeps With Monsters Dishonored

Let’s digress, today, and talk about a videogame.

Okay, so it’s not much of digression for some of you lot. But me, I play maybe two or three games per annum. Four, in a bumper year. Five—if something wild and strange has happened, maybe.

At the time of writing, I’ve spent much of the past four days sleeping and playing Dishonored. And I want to look at it in a limited way from a feminist viewpoint: not necessarily a theoretically advanced viewpoint, but my own experience of playing it.

You are Corvo Attano, the once-trusted bodyguard of the Empress. Framed for her murder and empowered with supernatural abilities, you become an assassin to seek revenge on those who ruined your life. The choices you make will shape your fate and that of the empire around you.

That’s what the box copy says. Ever since I played Metal Gear Solid for the old Playstation, I’ve had a terrible fondness for stealth games. Murder! In the dark! Outwitting the enemy in secret! But I like RPGs much better, and as a consequence in the last five years—with the exception of last year’s X-COM: Enemy Unknown and a couple of the SOCOM games—you can pretty much imagine what I’ve played. The Mass Effect series. Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2. The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Skyrim.

And I guess they’ve spoiled me, in terms of being narratively acknowledged. To me, Dishonored is more an interesting failure, one whose failings annoy me more the more I think on them.

Before I unpack what I mean by that, let me tell you what Dishonored did right by me. The world-building, in terms of mood and detail, is rich and atmospheric: the city of Dunwall, where the game is set, is a port city in the grip of a devastating plague. Graffiti, rats, dead bodies and decay, battered buildings, gaslamp-style science-magic, a fascistically omnipresent security apparatus, and a shocking amount of corruption. The mechanics of creeping around and disposing of your enemies by stealth are well done and mostly intuitive, and you can collect supernatural powers—like teleportation, stopping time, and possessing other creatures—following your first encounter with the slightly creepy being known as the Outsider.

Narratively, it’s fairly predictable. Some of the decisions made by the greater narrative were obvious from very early on. One Big Twist—that your allies are using you for their own ends and will end up betraying you—is fairly obvious from the get-go to anyone who’s ever read a spy thriller. But there’s no way to get the drop on those allies, even if you see the betrayal coming. Choices in-game are limited largely to performing the missions with minimum chaos or maximum bloodshed. This affects endgame results. (Save the child-empress and the city/cause everything to go to hell in a handbasket: these are the opposing poles of the outcomes.)

As failings go, that’s a fairly minor one. No game can be all things to all people, and that I wanted the narrative lability of an RPG when that’s not Dishonored’s goal in life is on me. But its alienating choices with regard to gender and race? Those are on it.

Let’s start with the first thing that irritated me in its thoughtlessness. The thing is, in Dishonored, you never see your own character’s face. Corvo never appears on-screen, except in a couple of still-shot endgame frames. So what’s the reason to gender that character? You could write all the incidental dialogue without gendered pronouns—it might not be trivially easy to make it sound entirely natural, but it’s certainly within the realm of the practical.

The second thing I noticed: Dunwall, although explicitly characterised as a port city and the heart of an empire, is populated only by the whitest of white people. Do I have to point out why this is alienating and wrong, or can we all agree that port cities, even plague-ridden ones, can be expected to present a wider palette of humanity?

Which brings us to item the third: presenting and portraying female characters. Women appear in Dishonored in the following roles:

  1. servants
  2. one dead empress
  3. one prepubescent child heir
  4. one witch, alignment (apparently) chaotic evil
  5. a handful of harmless survivors hiding in sewers
  6. aimless corrupt nobility at a masked ball
  7. the Lord Regent’s lover, described to your character in terms of her arse and not her political importance.

Men can be admirals, scientists, thugs and gangleaders, noblemen scheming for advantage, religious leaders, assassin-chiefs, random useful NPCs—the decisions of men move the game’s narrative arc. Women are pieces on the board.

Is it really so much to ask, in a game set explicitly in a port city, that the characters not be ALL SO WHITE? That some of the chief schemers and powerful movers-and-shakers be not ALL SO MALE?

I complained about this to Twitter. As a result, I was pointed at this article from The Mary Sue. In it, writer Becky Chambers advances the thesis that Dishonored made an active, fully-thought-out choice in depicting a society with retrogressive gender roles.

“The fact that the game points out inequality shows that it’s not complicit in it. It wants you to think about it. It wants you to know that such things aren’t right.”

Unfortunately for my willingness to agree with Chambers’ point, Dishonored is fairly subtle in how it points out the unfairness/misery/unpleasantness of discriminatory gender roles. In fact, if you weren’t already thinking about gender roles, you might not even notice the subtle points—

At one stage in my playthrough, I came across one of Corvo’s allies peering through a keyhole, while on the other side a woman was taking a bath. It did not occur to me until later—much later, in fact—that Corvo could’ve peered through that keyhole too, since looking through keyholes is a key part of all the sneaking. Had I chosen to look, would I have been rewarded with a view of an unaware woman who had not consented to be looked on in her nakedness? I don’t know—I don’t want to know—and thinking about the possibility makes my stomach turn over with disgust. The mere fact that one of Corvo’s allies is a peeping Tom and the game would not let me kill him at that point in time....

Elizabeth Bear wrote recently:

“I do not actually think those jokes were intended to hurt me. I think they were intended to be funny.

And yet, they left me feeling like a bad person. They left me lying awake at night, wondering why people hated me because I happen to be female.

...And they don’t realize that they are alienating me. A human being. Somebody who will lie awake at night wondering why they hate her.”

That? That sentiment describes how I feel about that moment in the game. It makes me want to say to Chambers’ defence of the game’s choices with: I respect your point of view. But.


Gender-based discrimination is unfair, and unethical, and wrong. (And any argument about the game’s choices with regard to gender leave out its choices on race.) But. But. I don’t need the social disabilities* of my gender slapped in my face in a gaslamp fantasy stealth-assassination game. I don’t want to be thinking about how my options were limited from my birth by social constructions of gender: how I can look at a slate of political candidates and find so few women, look at a list of members of a corporate board and find so very few women; look at the upper echelons of the civil service and see that women are still outnumbered there.

And if you do shove a society where gender-based discrimination is the norm in front of me in the name of entertainment, then I bloody well want more range: noblewomen scheming to control their children’s fortunes, courtesans getting in and out of the trade, struggling merchants’ widows on the edge of collapse and still getting by: more women-as-active-participants, less women-as-passive-sufferers. I would say this sort of thing annoys me, but really that’s the wrong word: it both infuriates and wearies me at the same time. I’m tired of needing to be angry.

It’s a massive failure at the heart of a game that’s smart about all kinds of things—but only as long as white men are the whole of the foreground.

Only that long.

Liz Bourke is a tired cranky youngish feminist. Find more crankiness at her blog and on twitter.

1. Isengrim
The reason the Corvo character needs to be male, is that he's Emily's father, and the dead Empress' lover. Which provides the character with a lot of his motivation, particularly when you meet the assassin later in the game (at least it did for me).

As to the lack of non-white characters; I suppose the reason (if not the justification) is that the devs were going for the aesthetic of Industrial Revolution Britain when they created Dunwall (architecture, accents, even a female monarch), and non-white people were something of a rarity in Britain back then. Of course its a fictional world and they could have had any combination of races they felt like, but I think that was their reason.

The same probably applies to the treatment of women within the world of Dunwall, ie 19th century gender roles. Again, that's a reason, not a justification. Although its worth noting that the monarch of Dunwall, her heir and several of the main villains are all women.
Fade Manley
3. fadeaccompli
Insengrim, unless it's vitally important that Emily also have an explicitly referenced mother who's not the protagonist, I don't actually see how anything in your first paragraph makes it mandatory that the protagonist is male, rather than ungendered or female. Women can also be parents to children! Women can also be lovers to women! It does happen. It did happen even in the emulated time period.

And non-white people were not nearly as much of a rarity in Britain as some people tend to assume. Especially in a port city. If it was desperately necessary that they portray the game as lily-white for Reasons, they would've been better off setting it somewhere farther away from trade routes.

And...well, okay, I am bemused by your third paragraph as well. Nothing in "gender roles" of the emulated time period would keep women from being "oblewomen scheming to control their children’s fortunes, courtesans getting in and out of the trade, struggling merchants’ widows on the edge of collapse and still getting by"; every single one of those suggested roles is well within the range of what women in that time period and place could, and did, do as active agents.

Overall, it sounds like they made a male protagonist in a white city where women don't do anything but get victimized or act as villains because they were working on entirely ahistorical assumptions based on the general perception of How Things Were Then, instead of actually emulating real history in any way. So... I guess if they were trying to evoke Generic Pseudo-Historical Situations, As Depicted By People Who Don't Know History, And As People Who Don't Know History Tend To Expect, What With Not Knowing History And All, they did indeed do a smashing job.

But we had a whole thread on why "But history!" is actually a really bad justification for this kind of ahistorical stuff. "I was trying to evoke a fictional version of history where everyone was white and only men did anything, because that's what everyone expects," is both honest and kinda sad. It's like setting a game in Rome, and then making sure every single man wears a toga and you never see anyone who's not Italian.
4. Isengrim
Well it is quite important for Emily to have a mother, since she's the Empress and her murder is the crux of the entire plot.

Admittedly it could have been an Emperor, and Corvo could have been Emily's mother instead. But to suggest that Corvo could have been female or gender neutral without changing the plot, as the writer seems to, seems absurd.
Fade Manley
5. fadeaccompli
Isengrim: Ah, that's interesting; not having played the game, I wasn't sure who "Emily" was, beyond, y'know, the protagonist's child.
6. robo
I thought it was supposed to be ambiguous whether Emily is actually Corvo's daughter. I mean that both to the audience and also to Corvo, my take on it was that even Corvo was unsure if he was actually Emily's father. It's possible I was reading too much into it, but that at least motivated me as I played through and made decisions. If that's the case, then Corvo MUST be male. And I thought that was a really cool layer to the story.
7. Beerofthedark
I've not long finished playing this game, and I felt similarly to LB afterward. Partly this was because the whole thing felt very cliched plot and character wise that it highlighted the lazy choices regarding gender and race. I really wanted to like this more than I did, because it felt like a great setting to explore.
In regards to the choice of Corvo's gender, it would have been a simple step to make the motivation Corvo's relationship with the Empress, which would lead naturally to an interest in protecting the child without having Corvo be the father. You could then, as LB suggests, leave the gender undefined for the player to inhabit as they please.
Lastly, London in the Industrial Revolution and Victorian eras (the ostensible model for this fictional city) was a cosmopolitan port city. It most definitely had non-white inhabitants and communities. If the real place could manage, it beggars belief that a made-up city in a non-real game couldn't include non-white participants. in fact there's no reason why it couldn't be a predominantly non-white polity.
William Carter
8. wcarter
The only justification I can see for an explicitly male character is as has been mentioned before the strong implications that Corvo is Emily's father and the Empress Jasmine's lover.

Even that is only implied. You could just as easily have had the player decide the gender of the otherwise completely blank slate character at the beginning of the game and changed nothing, including the implied romance between Corvo and the Empress.

For that matter Empa made a great female bodyguard for Zelda in OoT.

I've been playing through the game and I quite enjoy it for what it is, though there really are no narrative "surprises" per se, but even I cant help but wonder why Corvo--which could just as easily be the character's last name by the way--had to be anything specific.

As for the lack of other races, I've got nothing. There's really no excuse for that.

*Edit had the character's name reversed in my head for some reason. Mea Cupla.
Mordicai Knode
9. mordicai
Oh crud, I really want to play this game, but YAWN the same old trite issues. I was mid-way through Assassin's Creed III when I got hooked on Skyrim, & it shares a lot of these issues.
10. Isengrim
The character's name is Corvo Attano. And Emily hands the player a drawing of Corvo with the word "daddy" written on it. I'm not sure how much clearer they could have been, frankly. I'm sorry, but altering that is a pretty damn big change to the plot.

I found it an interesting take on the class divide actually, since I assumed that Corvo couldn't be ackowledged as the father publically because he wasn't of the nobility, yet there was (apparently) no stigma attached to the Empress or Emily for their involvement with Corvo.
William Carter
11. wcarter
They were far from perfect, and there was some relationship stuff cut from the first two games that shouldn't have been, but why the hell can't more studios take a clue from the Mass Effect series and give us some damned variation in people, races,romances ect. in video games?!
Chris Nelly
12. Aeryl
This is disheartening. If the game was trying to make a point about gender roles, there should be more to do with it IN GAME. Just like, if you are going to make a game with only one race, there should be a story WHY.

And I haven't played the game, but there are ways you could do the game without a gender preference, Bioware does it all the time. If your plot DEMANDS that the protag be a man, maybe the change should come from the plot, not the players. It would be different if there were a wide array of games like this with women in the lead, but there aren't.
Scott Silver
13. hihosilver28
I don't mind being locked into a race/sex/age for a game, but I do want there to be more options out there. Case in point; why has the only Assassin's Creed game featuring a woman be a PS Vita exclusive? There's no reason any of the main characters from the primary arc couldn't have been female. Especially for AC III. So, I won't be one to say that Gordon Freeman should be female, or that you should have a choice...though it literally wouldn't make a difference in that game. Then again...this entire perspective is coming from a place of privilege as I am a white male, so take with a grain of salt. And by grain, I mean those blocks that cows lick. :)

I would like for there to be a greater representation across the board. And three of my most anticipated games this year are Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite, and The Last of Us. Granted, the last two have a male in the lead role, with a female in a strong supporting role, but both of those roles do appear to be well thought out and written. Naughty Dog specifically has spoken about having Ellie in a prominent place on the box art and pushing back against the publisher when they were asked to remove her or make her role more minimal. Unfortunately, Irrational Games did the exact opposite with the Bioshock Infinite box art.
14. Juushika
The Border House also has some interesting commentary on this game.

I think there's the game has existent social critique specifically in regard to sexism, but it's 1) too subtle and 2) undercut by the game's inherent sexism. Both Becky Chambers and The Border House talk about what's done right, but the fact persists that, as you mention, men are actors and women are acted upon--they're motivations (saying that Corvo "must be" male because that makes the fate of his lover and child his primary motivation is only to excuse the problem by citing the problem, see: fiction is not created in a vacumm & every fridged women in the history of storytelling), chesspieces, and scenery--sometimes thoughtful scenery, but still nothing but.

If the subtleties of social critique--in things like the keyhole scene, in Emily's fantastic characterization, in the potential of Vera Moray--accompanied an active female character, I'd be a lot happier. She wouldn't necessarily need to be empowered beyond the constraints of the setting, but she would need to be a character with thought, identity, and action which had influence on the plot; nothing more than we ask for from nearly every single male character in the game. That female character could be Corvo, whose characterization is problematic and would have improved from alternation--he's a lazy silent protagonist, too delinated to allow any viewer to project on to him but with too little identity to make him interesting in his own right. It could be, and should have been, an active female cast member who wasn't disenfranchised not because the setting "requires" it but because we write stories with men as subjects and women as objects.

Of course none of this touches even remotely on the issue of race, which doesn't even have the benefit of partial exploration and representation--it's just ignored entirely.

I loved the game a lot, too! I concur with what it does right. But what it does wrong is deeply problematic, and when we try hard to read subtlety and exception into that it's too easy to overlook glaring fundemental flaws.
15. kimikimi
As to the race issue, and not having anyone but white people in a British port town: Britain was an Empire that ruled many far off countries including India. Did they think no one traveled back and forth that wasn't of European stock? Far enough back and they would have been importing slaves, and those slaves would have families etc... so even if they weren't keeping slaves anymore there would be pleanty of people of African decent and other kinds of decent. At one point they were even importing Native Americans as curiousities, so if Dunwall was based on Londen or another English port town they really failed.
James Oliver
16. JOliver
My biggest issue with the game is the lack of motivation to continue helping after you get Emily back. I like to think anyone who gets a position as the only bodyguard to the Empress is good at his job and probably not an idiot, but here I am being obviously set up for betrayal and running around like a good pawn. And really, once I retrieve Emily, the only thing keeping me in the game is the flimsy desire for revenge. Flimsy because the note at the beginning of the game pretty much suggests that Dunwall is screwed and unless the usurpers can change the course of things with their Manly Powers, the whole place is going down the toilet. If I had a choice, I'd grab Emily and find a way out of there the first chance I got. Let the people who killed my Empress enjoy their sinking ship. Let the people using me find another pawn. The Outsider would have a field day.

But no, trudge on toward betrayal.


I'd also like to note that finding a piece of Emily's art with "Daddy" scrawled across it doesn't necessarily make Corvo her father. I mean, unless father figures don't exist in that world. It could just mean that she considers him as such, especially since she has grown up in his presense and he is the only familiar, friendly face post-assassination, or wishes that he were. I know video games tend to lack subtlety, but let's try some optimism here.

Corvo need not be gendered to be the Empress' lover and I can't see how the possibility of him being Emily's father is a strong enough plot point that it can't be ignored. It doesn't necessarily provide any motivation that can't be established through Emily having grown up under your protection.
Sharat Buddhavarapu
17. spinfuzz
I watched an LP of this game, by a friend, and I sadly have to agree with every one of your critiques without allowing them slack on the narrative cliches. As has been noted frequently in this comment thread, how in hell is it that such a guy who makes choices that affect the Empire's fate would not see the betrayal coming and be able to kill those people, or, in a similar vein to a non-lethal playthrough, spirit Emily away? I felt that the player choice that Arkane Studios promised is seriously undermined by the narrative tropes.

As to the race and gender thing, egads! It is so sad that even a smallish studio like Arkane (Bethesda is only the distributor) would buy into the "But history!"argument. For Beerofthedark's benefit, I'll also note that Viktor Antonov, the designer, based Dunwall on an amalgam of Bristol and London, if I remember the correct port city. So even more reason for there to be racial diversity. Video games need to be held to higher standards!

For the people citing games they're looking forward to, I am one of those people highly-invested in these open-world RPG type things being done well (and I don't think Mass Effect, Dragon Age, or Elder Scrolls count, though I love them dearly; we can do so much better), so I am looking forward to Watch_Dogs and The Last of Us. Also, for those who have played it, what do you think of Tomb Raider? From what I've read in the post-mortems, all that hoop-la over that game director's piss-poor comments on "rape as characterization," was unnecessary (in terms of the actual game, not the way the director protrayed it).
Alan Brown
18. AlanBrown
Why does the bodyguard of the Empress need to have a blood relationship with the child to be motivated to save her? A loyal companion, who has guarded someone for years, and watched the child grow up, could have plenty of motivation to remain loyal to their employer, even when the employer was dead. And could share bonds of love and affection with both the employer and the child. Sex and blood relations are not the only motivations that create bonds between people. And it is easy to see a female regent being guarded by another female, especially if that guard was the one who remained closest to the regent. I could easily see this story working with either a male or female protagonist.
And the premise that English seaports had no ethnic diversity until recently is just laughable. Pictures of merchant ship crews from throughout history show a wide diversity of people from all lands.
19. Edward Brennan
I loved the physical development of the world. I loved the sneaking around. I loved that you could complete the entire game without killing anyone (incredibly difficult but possible). I liked that too much bloodshed made the world worse. I liked the magic system in it.

But the characters and plot were cliche, and not in a good way. They were cheap and cardboard. The writing was bad, the characterizations were atrocious. Corvo is a cheap cliche male action hero that as a guy makes me cringe. The women were even worse. For instance, we never really get a good feel for whether the Empress was a decent ruler. Dunwall is a pitiful place and has been so for some time. It is not like the Empress provided some sort of Golden age. In my eyes, maybe a rebellion of somesort was justified. But we will never know. She was a pawn in Corvo's story, never a leader in her own right. Notice that Corvo was never avenging a just ruler, but a mother and possible a lover, never a leader of power. A pretty sexist view. It all goes downhill for women after the Empress. If this is subtle questioning, it is too subtle for me- because no one in the world ever questions it even in a lampshaded way. In my view they took the grandure of the physics and physicality of the world of Dunwall, and populated it with a narrative world that Dishonered that creation.

The history card is crap too. Race in fantasy allows for what the writer wants. What this says is that the writer found diversity and the issues of this world, uninteresting to the fantasy the creator wanted to create. I doubt the creators were willing to rise to the challenge. Based on the lazy creation of the characters, I am willing to go with white people were easier for them to think about. Yuck.
20. Minchy
I've got to say I think people are giving the studio a bit of a hard time here. Sure, most of the critiques presented above I agree with, but lets not act like they conciously decided to portray an in game society without powerful women and other cultures. They made a great stealth action game with powerful combat mechanics and an interesting magic system, that was the goal of the game, not to be a critique of current or past societies' gender and racial views.

The fact is, the game was made in a society where the majority don't think about the things you meantioned in your article, which is a damn shame. What I'm saying is, don't hate the game developer for not thinking about these issues, hate the society that perpetuates these issues.
Chris Nelly
21. Aeryl
You act like we can't do both. But the creators are the ones who SHAPE the culture and society that is so problematic, so the change has to start with the creators.
Fade Manley
22. fadeaccompli
I think part of the reason we point these things out is so that people who haven't been thinking about it will start thinking. But I admit, I have much more sympathy for the writers of the game--who were, if we are charitable, and we may as well be, simply completely failed to do their research and thus built in a lot of society-influenced assumptions and cliches--than I do for later defenses of those flaws as being "historical" when they're not.

But, yes, it was probably just unconscious assumptions on the part of the game writers. And isn't it sad that it's standard for professionals paid to make big expensive games with many people working on them to completely fail to notice these things? And that no one else in the process did either? (Maybe I need to wander off muttering about the poor educational systems in this world or something.)
23. Reginald Hawksworth
It is implied that Corvo is the Empress' lover whom were unable to have a public relationship due to her status, and Emily is their daughter. As a result of this, Emily is shaped heavily by you as a father figure and if her character changes for the worse because of your actions the player is supposed to feel guilty; a kind a punishment for ignoring the stealth elements and just running the game with high chaos as though it were any old generic beat-em-up.
Chris Nelly
24. Aeryl

This is why have to keep calling out creators and developers. So creators who buck the status quo know someone's got their back and the developers know that what they think is so, ain't so.
Liz Bourke
25. hawkwing-lb
Isengrim @4 and @10

(and also @Reginald Hawksworth @23):

While it's implied that Corvo has a fatherly relationship to Emily, or at any rate an in loco parentis one, to state that it is necessary for Corvo's character to be

a) Emily's father
b) male

ignores the fact that many persons act in the relationship of parents in respect to people with whom they have no blood relationship, and ignores, as well, that in order to be a) lover to a woman and/or b) a parental figure to her child, one does not have to be a male person. To argue otherwise ignores not only the experiences of lesbian parents, but the experiences of all the aunts, grandmothers, female friends, elder sisters, and so on, who have stood and stand in the relation of parents alongside mothers (and/or fathers) to their children.

mordicai @9:

I really enjoyed the gameplay here, which made its other failings all the more irritating in retrospect. (It's also a relatively short game compared to my usual run of games. I think I finished my playthrough inside 24 total gameplay hours.) I'd've loved it if it hadn't been so very... SWM.

Juushika @14:

Thank you for that link. I've only just started reading the Border House Blog myself.
She wouldn't necessarily need to be empowered beyond the constraints of the setting, but she would need to be a character with thought, identity, and action which had influence on the plot; nothing more than we ask for from nearly every single male character in the game.
Quoted for truth.

Minchy @20:
let's not act like they conciously decided to portray an in game society without powerful women and other cultures.
Art doesn't happen by accident. In that sense, every choice that goes into the making of every game is conscious. They don't get cut slack because they weren't setting out to critique assumptions: for just as art is a product of culture, it is also constitutive of it. Life may inform art, but art also informs living, modes of thought, orientations towards the world. To reproduce a default (straight, white, male) is to reinforce as normal the exclusion of other classes of people, not only in the art, but in the world.

Failing to critique/interrogate/subvert (or failing in an attempted critique, which is a different although related Failure Mode) existing assumptions relating to power, gender, race and class in your art is to support those assumptions in that art. The personal is always political. And so is art.

You also seem to suggest that one can't critique ("hate," in your formulation) both the producers of art that takes for granted a lazy normalisation of exclusion and, at the same time, critique the culture/society that produces and shapes those producers - just as they contribute to shaping it - in turn. In which suggestion you are wrong: a socially-aware critique of art is always, always, oriented with reference to culture and society.
26. S.M. Stirling
fadeaccompli #3: "And non-white people were not nearly as much of a rarity in Britain as some people tend to assume. Especially in a port city."

-- well, no. Rarity in the port cities, virtually unknown elsewhere.

in London as of say, 1900, it would be about 1 person in 500-600 (around 0.2%), and not evenly spread.

In Britain as a whole, less than 1 in 1000; the population was -- quite literally -- around 99.9% white overall, and 99.8% in the metropolis.

There were no immigration controls -- any British subject could move to Britain and immediately exercise all the legal rights of anyone born there -- but very few did.

Occasionally immigrants were fairly conspicuous: two British MP's (one Liberal, one Conservative) in the 1894-1906 period were Indians.

Daleep Singh, the last Sikh maharaja of the Punjab, was a godson of Queen Victoria, quite well-known at court, and his children married into the British gentry. One became a well-known suffragette.

There were always a few Indians at Oxford, Cambridge, and some of the "public" schools from the late Victorian period on.

But generally speaking, in most parts of Britain prior to the post-WWII period, you could go through your entire life without ever seeing a non-white person; quite a few met their first black person during the war (American soldiers). In London or Liverpool you'd see one occasionally but would be unlikely to have much contact.

I fail to see why there's so much psychological resistance to theis fact.

Cities as "diverse" as contemporary Western metropoli are historically uncommon. Globally it's -still- uncommon; Shanghai is almost entirely Chinese (98.8% Han Chinese, at that) and white faces are rare in Kinshasa.

Usually throughout history the overwhelming majority of people in any given city were from within a few days' walk of it. Seaports would have a spattering of people from much further away, but not many, and most of those would be from the closer trade routes. Marco Polo made it to China, but he was remarkable precisely because that sort of thing was so rare.

Travel was expensive and physically risky; just moving through multiple different disease environments was hideously dangerous until quite recently and is still not without some risk, and cities were cesspits that killed more people than were born in them. Living among strangers with different customs and religions was not something many people chose to do either -- if nothing else, extreme xenophobia was more common than not.

The main exceptions were areas that drew on the various slave trades -- that was why Rome (and Italy in general) was full of foreigners in the late Republican and early Imperial period.

Also why the first recorded uprising of black plantation slaves was the Zanj (black) Rebellion in what's now Iraq, around Basra, in 869-883 AD.

Ditto why yould get people from the Eastern Europe and a spattering from sub-Saharan Africa in the medieval Mediterranean. About 10,000 slaves were exported yearly from the Crimea (mostly Ukrainians, Russians and Moldavians) in Renaissance and early modern times, and 4-6,000 crossed the Sahara annually for a very long period, and there were intermittent flows from the Balkans and the Caucasus.

In those cases most went to the Islamic world, but a smaller number ended up in the southern European countries.

But generally speaking, the "racially" diverse world we inhabit is a product of the post-Columbian migrations attendant on the rise of the West European empires, and with respect to places like Britain, of the last couple of generations. In fact, "race" itself is largely a mental construct of the post-1492 period.
27. S.M. Stirling
PS: demographic statistics in the above from Drescher, ABOLITION, from THE OXFORD HISTORY OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE, and from the usual Wiki suspects.
28. D.B. Jones
Gender and race are a sticking point in video games, and have been for a while, and will be for a while. Games featuring non-white non-male protagonists don't generate strong sales, according to market research, so publishers won't publish them (or, if they do, won't give them a marketing budget, meaning they won't generate strong sales, meaning the market research etc etc).

Might I recommend Telltale's The Walking Dead as a palate cleanser? It's not an RPG, but it is a game of making choices, and, when it comes to addressing the politics of race, gender, and the human condition, it is not shy at all.
Stephen Stirling
30. joatsimeon
hawkwing-lb: "The personal is always political. And so is art."

- a slogan first advanced back in the 1920's by one Giovanni Gentile, the fascist (literally, he was a favorite of Benny the Moose and his ghostwriter) philosopher.

The Bolsheviks were also fond of saying things of that order -- that there was no private sphere distinct from politics, particularly in art.

This idea, that everything is subject to and can be judged by some political narrative (take your pick as to which one) is, of course, inherently totalitarian. Gentile (and Lenin's commissars) at least were honest about it. It's the reflexive default position of inquisitors.
Chris Nelly
31. Aeryl
I love* how the equal representation of marginalized groups is somehow "political narrative", and not just, you know, decency, and something we should all strive for. In addition I also love* how a little critique now means rolling out OMG TOTALITARIAN THREAT *ZOMBEH-LENIN!!!* in first responding salvo.

Also, I find it laughable that games that continue to cater to dominant privileged minority is supposed to mean "exempt from criticism unless peen" and that male gamers can't relate to female protags (sorry Lara, Chell, Bayonetta, you don't exist anymore).

*love=not love:^(
32. D.B. Jones
Aeryl, I'm sorry you find it laughable that "male gamers can't relate to female protags." I'm sorry that you find it laughable, and I'm sorry that it's a documented fact.

There's a study that showed that, of a subset of about 600 video games with clearly-defined characters (ie, not racing games), about half had either a female protagonist or the option of a female protagonist. Those games tended to review higher than those with male-only protagonists, but the games with male-only protagonists sold 25% better than games with even the option of making a female protagonist, and 75% better than games with a female-only protagonist. (Except on the DS; female-only outsells male-only there and there alone.)

Also... your list of female protagonists is a bit odd. Chell has been described as "a deranged mute psychopath," Bayonetta is niche as hell, and Lara just got a reboot because a smart and strong adventuress isn't as marketable as a weeping teenage girl with a bow. I'd offer Commander Shepherd, but only 18% of Commander Shepherds were female-- the other 82% were a white guy with a shaved head and facial stubble. So where does that leave us?

Samus, and Clementine.
Chris Nelly
33. Aeryl
Those games tended to review higher than those with male-only
protagonists, but the games with male-only protagonists sold 25% better than games with even the option of making a female protagonist, and 75% better than games with a female-only protagonist.

Nothing in that statement contradicts anything I said. It only shows that a) female led games aren't marketed well, continuing the self-fulfilling prophecy that "girls don't sell" b) male gamers go out of their way to play bad games to conform to gender roles.

And the games I picked can be "odd" (and there's nothing in my statement that says the protags should be held up as beacons of womanhood, so wev) but they are still popular titles that many male gamers have played, defying the "guys can't relate to girls herp derp".

Plenty of men have absolutely no problem relating to women, because WE ARE HUMAN. It's only the ones that view women as "other" and not-human, that have these problems, and this is something to be addressed not ignored under the umbrella of "well, it won't work".
Mordicai Knode
34. mordicai
33. Aeryl

Seriously, what kind of a weirdo is unable to relate to a fictional woman but totally fine with relating to a fictional murderer?
Liz Bourke
35. hawkwing-lb
SM Stirling @26:

Thank you for adding the source of your figures.

Nonetheless, the choice to privilege "historical realism" (for whatever values of realism, which may or may not be contestable) in the worldbuilding of a fantasy game does disappear, and render unproblematic the disappearance, of many people in the audience. This would be much less of an issue if we had similarly well-funded and well-marketed games in settings inspired by, say, nineteenth-century Kolkata and Mumbai, or Beijing, or Tunis, or Baghdad (Assassin's Creed and Prince of Persia aside, which have co-opted historical settings) - but since we don't, I personally remain unconvinced that "realism" is a necessary or sufficient defence in cases like the one at hand.

joatsimeon @30:

Is that a new way of saying I'm a feminazi? It's wonderful to see some variety! (You're better off sticking with charges of Bolshevism. Lenin, for all his flaws, was a successful revolutionary and an interesting thinker, and one can admire the goals of Communism while deploring the methods of the Soviet state...)

I suggest you look up a 1970 essay on "The Personal is Political," from an anthology edited by Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt, which is often credited with bringing the phrase into the public consciousness of feminist thought - although I understand it to have been dialectically current in the women's liberation movement prior to that publication.

Flippancy aside, whether or not we judge art by whether or not it conforms to a political narrative or narratives, art is always informed by them. In this sense I use the term political to refer to the socially and culturally partisan* backgrounds out of which we all arise and to which we all contribute, whether in support or in resistance/subversion/reuse to dominant narratives of the way things are: or depending on the circumstance, both at once. And likewise art is one of the constituent elements of that political, that socio-cultural background: it contributes to the thing that produces it.

Margaret Thatcher, accursed be her policies, once infamously said, "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families." In a sense she was right: there is no single aggregate reified Society: but humans are machines for communicating ideas and finding patterns (consciously and subconsciously), connected in and by material and symbolic networks. An individual does not exist separate from their socio-cultural background, and thus, no matter who said it first (citation please!) the personal is political is a true and useful statement.

*For we all have partisan interests, consciously or not - often, largely, not conscious of having them: our biases are invisible until dragged out into the light.

It's the reflexive default position of inquisitors.

The idea that the individual is conditioned by culture and society is one long held as difficult to controvert by the vast majority of anthropologists...

Aeryl @33:
Plenty of men have absolutely no problem relating to women, because WE ARE HUMAN. It's only the ones that view women as "other" and not-human, that have these problems, and this is something to be addressed not
ignored under the umbrella of "well, it won't work".

mordicai @34:

Ain't it fun?
A.L. Travis
36. adrienne
Nota bene to all participants in this thread: joatsimeon is the same person as S.M. Stirling. Not sure if it's just a login error, or if he has a separate identity for when he wants to post even more egregious comments than he posts under his real name, but people are responding as if they are two different people and they are not.
37. S.M. Stirling

"I love* how the equal representation of marginalized groups is somehow "political narrative"

-- was anything I said untrue?

Because dude, unless you can show it is, you just lost.

And you haven't even -claimed- it was untrue; you just started leaping around and yelling BAD PERSON! BAD PERSON!

>and not just, you know, decency

-- crimminy, I hadn't noticed that you and your social reference group had a monopoly on that quality.

How could we all have been so blind as not to realize that you're the gatekeeper who establishes that!

Narcissism much? Yeah, thought so.

Dude, news flash: you and your buddies are not the Discourse Police, and you don't get to set the boundaries of what can be respectably said.

Nobody does.

"In addition I also love* how a little critique now means rolling out OMG TOTALITARIAN THREAT *ZOMBEH-LENIN!!!* in first responding salvo."

-- dude, you have just illustrated the truth of my point; "the personal is political" is the default position of the secret police and camp guards.

>supposed to mean "exempt from criticism unless peen" and that male gamers can't relate to female protags

-- who said that?

Dude, take deep breaths. Cut back on the caffine. The world contains -people who aren't like you-. In ways far more important than genital plumbing or melanin content.

You need to come to terms with this fact.
38. S.M. Stirling
35. hawkwing-lb

"Thank you for adding the source of your figures. Nonetheless, the choice to privilege "historical realism" (for whatever values of realism, which may or may not be contestable)"

-- you're shifting your goalposts here. You said that the game -wasn't- historically realistic; now you say it doesn't matter.

Can't have it both ways.

>in the worldbuilding of a fantasy game does disappear, and render unproblematic the disappearance, of many people in the audience. "

-- exactly how does it "disappear" anyone? They just aren't in that particular city.

Presumably there are cities elsewhere in the imaginarium/world with a different ethnic makeup.

If the game were based on contemporary Shanghai, would that "disappear" anyone who wasn't Chinese?

You can't be everywhere at the same time, and the world (and any world based on it) is highly varied in its makeup.

"This would be much less of an issue if we had similarly well-funded and well-marketed games in settings inspired by, say, nineteenth-century Kolkata and Mumbai"

-- there are -plenty- of games set in pre-Meiji Japan or analogues thereof. Last time I was in Bangalore (for a wedding) I noticed a fair bit of gaming activity. Anyone who wants to can make a game.

Presumably, if someone in Bangalore writes a game, it's likely to use India or a fantasy analogue thereof as a setting.

"You'd be better off sticking to... Bolshevism"

-- Functionally, there's no difference Lenin was an evil mass-murdering tyrant and all-around creep; read his correspondence. It drips with murderous fury and desire to kill. Cheka = Gestapo, all same-same as part of the "age of social catastrophe".

Communism and its mutant offspring fascism and National Socialism are essentially variants of the same thing, and their totalizing attempt at the politicization of every aspect of life is a good indicator of what sort of thing they are.

Classical liberalism, on the other hand, is notable for its sustained attempt to -reduce- the sphere of the political -- by decoupling religion from the State, for example, by restricting the legitimate sphere of action of the State, and by gradually extending the concept of the autonomous individual to everyone regardless of adscriptive status.

cf. John Stuart Mill.

>and thus, no matter who said it first (citation please!) the personal is political is a true and useful statement.

-- the fascist dude said it first, and this was "no accident". As I said, it's the instinctive position of the secret police, Communist, Fascist, or otherwise, and it was common to all the post-WWI totalitarian movements and all anti-liberalism.

As this entire conversation (starting with an attempt to delegitimize the game in question for, essentially, political non-conformity) illustrates.
39. S.M. Stirling
Yup, my password diappeared. Joatsimeon is my email.
Chris Nelly
40. Aeryl
Why is your numbers on racial and gender representation in any actual society RELEVANT to the topic of a fantasy game? It's not. What is relevant, is that in TODAY'S society, more is expected in terms of representation, though obviously, not from you. That's (not) okay though, I'd probably just fine in a world that portrayed me as the dominant default individual in everything too.

Yes, perpetuating fucked up heirarchies that oppress and stifle others makes you a BAD PERSON BAD PERSON, (not)sorry we can't go back to the times when no one called others on their privileges.

And yeah, being inclusive of marginalized groups is pretty much the lowest rung on the decency ladder, (not)sorry you apprently didn't get that memo from the Decency Overlords, I'll make sure you're on the next mailing.

So video gamers critique a video game as lacking in the qualities we desire to see, as members of an inclusive and diverse society, and we're Lenin, and somehow my sarcastic rejoinder proved I'm Lenin. Wev.

The rest of that comment is not in response to you, unless you are sockpuppetting as someone else in this thread too, so stop trying to wear a shoe that doesn't belong to you.

But, seriously, you can knock it off with the patronizing "cut back on the caffiene crap" for realz. That shit only makes you look bad, not anyone else.
41. S.M. Stirling
Oh, and one of John Stuart Mill's points in ON LIBERTY is that public opinion within a given community can be just as much a threat to individual expression as

Nota bene to those immersed in the warm communal bath of a mobbing attack.
Liz Bourke
42. hawkwing-lb
SM Stirling @35

Because dude, unless you can show it is, you just lost.

Dude. I was unaware we were having a competition. A discussion isn't a zero-sum game - and if you're treating it as one, maybe you should step back for a while.

I happen to think you're being a bit failing to consider the points of reference of all parties to the conversation here. I also think that in zeroing in on race and not considering the gendered aspect of my original point, you're perhaps failing to consider the discussion in a holistic sense. Dishonored's attitudes to race and gender are a fertile nexus for interrogation of its attitudes to its reader/viewer/player base.

ETA: I have more Things To Say, but I'm going to step back myself for a bit and return in a calmer frame of mind.
William Carter
43. wcarter
Is it sad that I'm getting more entertainment out of this Dishonored discussion thread then I did out of the game itself past the first couple of missions or so?

Edit, had cited four hours, but truthfuly I'm not quite sure where the playclock when I started to lose some of my interest, just that it was around the third mission or so (taking out the Pendleton brothers).

Second Edit: Thank You Bridgitt. I'm guessing my entertainment from debate would have turned to disgust at the name calling very shortly.
Bridget McGovern
44. BMcGovern
This is where I step in, as moderator. I think it's clear that while there may have been some valid points floating about early on, this discussion has gone off the rails. There is a fine line between exploiting the unpopular non-conformist card and outright trolling, and given your history on this site, Mr. Stirling, I find it more and more difficult to believe that you are engaging in these discussion in good faith. This is not the first time I've had to intercede because of your dismissive and condescending attitude toward other commenters, and I think it's time to put a stop to what has become, basically, trolling. Everyone else, please try to return to a productive, civil discussion of the topic, in accordance with our Moderation Policy.
Liz Bourke
45. hawkwing-lb
BMcGovern @44:

*salutes the moderators* Ave, Caesares!

wcarter @43:

I think Brothel!mission is the point at which it begins to become clear how little influence your choices have on the narrative, and that they're all functionally going to be very much the same type of mission.

I liked the gameplay enough that that quirk didn't bother me so much. But I can see where it could get wearing pretty fast.
William Carter
46. wcarter

Then I think we more or less agree on this game.

There was so much done right with parts of the gameplay mechanics in terms of the options the player is given for sneaking around (0r not) and using the powers to avoid or take out enemies that it boggles the mind how limited so everything else was.

What was fun just isn't enough to hold my attention on its own past that point.
Alan Brown
48. AlanBrown
In case anyone is still following this thread, another article on a similar topic:

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